The Company and the Municipal Corporation Commission

Company History

In what shape was the Plumbers’ Company almost 200 years ago? The answers given, on behalf of the Company, to the Municipal Corporation Commissioners provide some insight.

The Commission was set up in 1833 to inquire into the state of municipal corporations, to report on any abuses, and to propose measures to correct any such abuses. Despite some uncertainty whether Livery Companies were municipal corporations at all, the Commission’s second report, covering the Companies, was eventually published in 1837.

The Commissioners sent a circular questionnaire to all the Livery Companies in March 1834. Some idea of the contemporary hostility to the Companies is given in this newspaper article of the time:

” … the companies, who have carried everything with so high a hand for such a series of years, and whose extravagant expenditure has raised the voices, and almost the hands, of the unparticipating citizens violently against them.”

Some Companies, the Plumbers among them, answered comprehensively; others, including the Grocers, the Upholders, the Glaziers, and the Turners, either did not respond at all or only minimally.

The Plumbers’ answers to the questionnaire were prepared by John David Towse, the Clerk of over thirty years’ standing. He was aged 73, and was Clerk to the Fishmongers and Cooksas well. On the direction of the Court those answers were recorded in a bound volume. This is now kept in the Guildhall Library (MS 5725). Towse was later paid £32 8s 4d for his labours in compiling the answers. He presented those answers to the Commissioners in November 1834 at Guildhall; the Court, rather timidly, resolved that he, and he alone, should answer any oral questions posed by the Commissioners. Many of Towse’s written answers are quoted verbatim in the Commissioners’ report.

In 1834, the size of the Livery was 87. At least 70 Liverymen were of the trade, or connected with the trade, such as clerks in the counting house of a plumber.

Qualification for a Liveryman was as follows: an applicant must be a Freeman of the Company and of the City, without regard to any other circumstances whatsoever. Over the previous 20 years, the number of Liverymen admitted each year varied from 4 to none; the number of Freemen from 6 to 12. Women might be admitted to the Freedom, but there were none at present in the Company.

The Court numbered 18, all plumbers by trade. It was not usual to elect those who did not “seal solder”. In election of members of the Court, it had never been deemed proper to inquire into their religious beliefs.

“The offices of Master and Wardens are not burthensome, the duties being light.” (Some of our more recent Masters might well have a wry smile at this.)

The ordinary business of the Court was the admission of Freemen, allowing the binding of Apprentices, admitting Liverymen, considering petitions for charity, electing members to the Court and electing officers, and on matters connected with, and arising out of, the affairs of the Company.

The Court examined both Apprentices, who had to be between the ages of 14 and 21, and potential Masters.

Quarterage was 1s 8d per quarter for householders, and 1s quarterly for Journeymen. (The accounts for 1834/5 show that quarterage provided only £33 out of total income for the year of £463.)

The Company’s accounts were not made available to Liverymen, and Liverymen played no part in influencing the Court’s decisions.

The Beadle had a significant role; he issued summonses, attended Court and committee meetings, reported on persons carrying on the trade without being free of the Company, and superintended the assay and sealing of solder. He was therefore, necessarily, a practical plumber.

It must be said that the Commission’s conclusions in relation to the Livery Companies in general were largely of a negative nature.

Past Master Peter Brunner